COVID-19: The effectiveness of mutual-aid groups and their lessons for post-crisis community care

Lead Research Organisation: Royal Holloway, University of London
Department Name: Geography


Covid-19 has shown that much of the state, public sector, NGOs and elements of the private sector are slow to respond to a crisis. In many areas, mutual aid groups have mobilised quicker, responding to the needs present in their communities and/or neighbourhoods. In so doing, they highlight some of the political and procedural 'gaps' in corporate and State-led institutional emergency response programs, as well as help to identify resource allocation that hasn't been pre-planned in crisis responses (i.e. homelessness provision, national health and social care policies, food delivery etc.). However, often these locally organised groups dissipate afterwards, and their vital operational and local geographic knowledge goes under-utilised in providing more effective and appropriate community care in a post-crisis 'normal' setting. The project aims to collate, evidence and conceptually analyse 'on the ground' mutual aid groups (i.e. those working mostly off-line and in-person) that have mobilised in response to the Covid-19 crisis to care for vulnerable people in the community: e.g. people who are shielded, self-isolating, the homeless, those with long-term conditions etc.

This interdisciplinary project has three distinct aims/phases. First, to comprehensively survey and thematically categorise mutual aid provision during the peak, and in the recessionary aftermath of the pandemic. Second, to undertake a deep-dive into selected case studies of categories and geographies to highlight best practice and how they related to (or substituted for) corporate/governmental responses. Third, to produce a multi-media online 'Manifesto of Mutual Aid' that explains the 'how', and crucially, the 'why' of mutual aid to effectuate better policy implementation post-crisis in conjunction with relevant governmental and non-governmental institutions.


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Title Mutual in the pandemic - an interactive documentary 
Description An interactive documentary is a website that hosts multimedia content (film, audio, images, etc.) in a non-linear format. It mixes gaming and film, all within a contextual theme. We are in the phases of editing our iDoc, which will be hosted at It will consist of recording video interviews, footage of our ethnographic work, audio clips, links to institutions and photos. It will be available freely online. 
Type Of Art Artefact (including digital) 
Year Produced 2022 
Impact It has yet to be fully released 
Description The pandemic has seen a fundamental shift in our global society on a myriad of levels: global travel, national politics, but also community organising. The project so far has highlighted in fine grain detail how people and local institutions (faith groups, charities, community hubs, schools, food banks etc.) came together during the pandemic to help the most vulnerable under the banner of 'mutual aid'. As the project enters the final stages and we prepare outputs, it has been clear that there was a wealth of community spirit generated during the pandemic that has seen many people not just supported, but in some cases, pulled out of certain destitution. By using 7 case studies across England, the project has highlighted how mutual aid groups have worked in different geographical contexts, what kind of activities have been sustainable (as we enter a climate emergency-riddled future) and how local and national governments have reacted to it.

Specifically the project has found that
- Mutual aid has been mobilised as a term to cover a range of activities that it previously did as a legacy term from anarchist thought
- There is a distinct geographical variation in how mutual aid operates, in terms of a North-South divide and an urban rural one.
- Faith groups have been integral to organising local communities and mutual aid activities
- People who needed help did not always come from the traditional forms of poverty; previously quite affluent people were suddenly made very vulnerable

As the results and outcomes of this project (in the form of academic papers, interactive documentary films, manifestos and events) are being written up and prepared, further work has been conducted to formulate international versions of the research. We have been busy collaborating with international partners, particularly in the US to prepare further related work that will look to see how mutual aid is international, and what can be learned from different national contexts.
Exploitation Route The future trajectories of this research are truly exciting for us, and indeed the others who we have talked to and collaborated with. We have already begun formulating another research bid to follow on from this that will involve international partners in Detroit, Cape Town, New York and (hopefully) Mexico City and Rio de Janeiro. This will take the form an AHRC research grant bid, and involve international academics and mutual aid groups. As well as that, our advisory board - consisting of charities, emergency disaster relief companies, MPs and activists - have indicated that our research so far (specifically the iDoc and the manifesto) will form part of their policy discussions going forward. We have a launch event of the iDoc in May 2022, for which parliamentarians, policy makers and charities will be invited. Beyond that, the activists, faith institutions, community hubs: they have all expressed an interest in hosting a viewing night for the documentary, so we plan to take it on a little 'tour' to say thank you to our participants and showcase all their amazing community work.
Sectors Communities and Social Services/Policy,Creative Economy,Education,Environment,Government, Democracy and Justice

Description While the iDoc and Manifesto outputs of the project are still being formulated, there is already a considerable impact that even the production of them is having. For example, when filming interviews of community leaders in Burnley, the ability of them to talk about their work during (and after) the pandemic in such candid ways has given them an emotional catharsis that they told us they would not have otherwise got. The people that have been served by these mutual aid groups too have told us how much they enjoyed the filming process. So even before the iDoc has been produced, the impact has already been tangible. In addition, with discussions with our advisory group, local Labour MPs have indicated that our work and preliminary findings will be used to formulate local community plans in the future. Given that our Manifesto document will showcase models of best mutual aid practice, local government are of course very interested in our findings given that it will provide a way to help them organise often very scarce resources, or to distribute food more efficiently. An example would be the location of community fridges: in our research already we have spoken to a number of people who have put community fridges in their locality, and we have performed a quasi 'evaluation' of their usage and their perception in the community. This data has informed local councillors how to go about setting one up in the future.
First Year Of Impact 2022
Sector Communities and Social Services/Policy
Impact Types Societal